Why do we still have to say this a year after Rana Plaza?

© Family Album

By Anu Muhammad

24th April 2014

Translation Razima Selim Chowdhury

A year ago, before the terrible collapse and the killing at Rana Plaza happened we were recovering from the wounds of Tazrin. The images of burnt corpses and the cries of the wounded were haunting us all, pointing to the inhumanity of this world. There were no case against those responsible, a large number of victims were yet to receive any compensation and the wounded were still screaming out loud. In the middle of this, Rana Plaza collapsed and devastated us all. Bangladesh made a world record in the history of industrialized civilization by having the largest number of casualty in a single incident in the last couple of hundred years. The current official figure for people buried alive under the debris is 1135. These digits not only represent the number of deceased but also the number of families who are still suffering from the consequence of the loss. And we didn’t even count the missing and the injured. All the survivors among the five thousand workers working in those factories lost their jobs. Many of them are still unemployed. The promise BGMEA made to ensure the employment of the survivors has not been implemented yet, as was expected of them. We no longer hear them talking about this issue these days.

The collapse of Rana Plaza shook the whole world. Did it bring any insight to our government and factory owners? What did not happen after Tazrin garments, could it possibly change the mindset and operation of the garment sector authorities? The incidents that followed in the last one year say nothing really changed.

Several researches were done on Tazrin Garments and Rana Plaza victims by organizations not related to the Bangladesh Government and BGMEA. Many individuals, labor organizations and research organizations initiated to make lists of the victims - deceased, missing and survivors as well as to oversee the condition of the survivors. We have not seen any such initiative taken either by the government or BGMEA. A small group of anthropologist under the banner of “Activist Anthropologist” in association with two small garment factory labor organizations prepared a list of victims who survived the disaster at Tazrin and Rana Plaza. This group stood by the families of the victims and the injured. They even made it possible to have the government arrest the owner of Tazrin through intervention of the court. The government did not take any initiative even after one year since the incident happened.

A group named “24th April” prepared documents with all the information on Rana Plaza. “Garments Sromik Sanghati” recently published a list of missing workers. The list is a work in progress. Another list of deceased and injured victims, prepared by a group of Jahangirnagar University students involved in Rana Plaza rescue team is still referred to as an important document for identifying the actual number of victims. The meticulous and sincere efforts of these small groups demonstrate that you don’t need huge financial backup or human resource to conduct such important work. The government and BGMEA who possess both big financing backup and human resource did not perform these tasks.

The remains of the dead are still found in the wrecks of Rana Plaza. The families of the victims still visit that place and stare at the ruins behind the barricades in silence. A lot of families consider this as the resting place of their loved ones, as if the deceased are invisible to the eyes of the living and haunting that place. The identification of missing workers still has not been completed even after a year. The DNA test has not resolved the cases for many. I still have not found the answer to my question about the DNA test procedure. As part of the investigation of the murder of Sagor and Runi, the specimens from the crime scene were sent to the US in the pretext that DNA testing procedure in Bangladesh is not reliable. Now the DNA testing in search of thousands of missing workers are conducted here in Bangladesh. The question remains about validity of these tests.

In May 2013 primarily some European brand companies and labour organizations created an organization named ACCORD. A few days later, another organization named Alliance was created based in North America. They are talking about compensation in their own procedure. They are investigating the safety conditions of factories and publishing their findings and decisions. In order to meet the conditions set out by these organizations the government is promising employment of factory inspectors. The owners of factory building are now promising safety of their building premises. The government and the factory owners were supposed to do all these a long time back. The question is unless there is a pressure from the international community why the government and the factory owners take no measures. Why no fund was allocated for the employment of factory inspection and rescue operation capacity building programs in the annual budget that were announced two months after the Rana Plaza collapse? Why no policy has been announced for compensation and reparation? Why the families of the deceased are still running from door to door for reparation? Why all the unemployed workers including the injured victims are still not rehabilitated as promised?

There is no transparency of the funds deposited to the government and BGMEA received from home and abroad on behalf of the workers. According to the information given out in the Parliament the deposit amount at Prime Minister’s Office is approximately BDT 128 Crore. It is possible to distribute reparation in the amount of BDT 10 Lakh to each family of the deceased with this fund alone. If we add the funds collected from the big brands, factory owners and BGMEA it is possible to give away a respectable amount in reparation. However, there is still no sign of any announcement regarding the policy on reparation. I believe it is time to raise the question about who is benefitting from this fund collected on behalf of the deceased workers who became victims of endless greed and negligence.

The case for the collapse of building due to negligence including supervision is still pending. It is the duty of the government as a regulatory agency to take proper measures to check if a factory is set up in an unsuitable place or building or if the factory owners are neglecting safety measures for workers to make more profit. If they fail to do so, what is the function of the Ministry of Industry and the Ministry of Labor? It would have been the most natural course of action to plan on strengthening the fire brigade for disaster response. The latest government budget has no reflection of that and the same excuse of shortage of funds is given. On the other hand, the government makes no delay in making generous supports in favor of the garment factory owners. The commerce minister recently announced a number of “incentive packages” for the owners. The tax breaks given at source alone will impact a loss of Two Thousand Crores in national revenue.

The BGMEA did not keep their promise of ensuring employment of all the surviving victims. A recent survey conducted by Action Aid among the survivors shows that 74% are still unemployed, about 76% still seeking treatment and 66% have no means to survive (Daily Star, April 21, 2014). There have been cases of survivors dying from poverty and hunger despite such commotion and collection of funds in the name of the victims. In the meantime, two workers were shot dead by the industry police for protesting layoff and demanding fair wage. Some others were shot and injured and many arrested in the middle of the night. Have we heard of a single case that this so called industry police taking any measures against the factory owners for torture, abuse, illegal layoff and outstanding wage? On top of that, the forces of Border Guards of Bangladesh (BGB) who are supposed to protect our borders are now being used to suppress the workers’ protests!

The report published by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) claims that a number of initiatives have been implemented. Almost all these initiatives mentioned in the list are either policies or planning (Prothom Alo, April 22, 2014). They are claiming the revision of labor law as a progress towards labor rights. If we consider the concerns of the workers the opposite is true. There has been no progress in important areas of labor rights such as compensation/ reparation, employment and increasing efficiency of government agencies.

We all live in the same world. A few months ago 50 people died in a shopping mall collapse in Latvia. The president of that country declared this as murder and the prime minister of that country resigned taking responsibility of the incident. On the other hand, after 1135 reported deaths in the Rana Plaza collapse we could not even ensure their compensation. Life is so cheap in this country!

Three sisters - Shumi, Razia and Selina along with Selina and Shafiqul, their cousins from their mother’s side, all lived in separate rooms in the same house. They went to work at the same time and returned from work almost at the same time. They would often have dinner together. They did everything together - whether it is hanging out for a chat, sharing their joy, grief, rage or making concrete plans together or maybe just day dreaming. Among these five, only one survived, that’s Razia. The factories that collapsed and turned a graveyard on April 24th at Rana Plaza used to be their workplace. They still haven’t found the body of one amongst the four deceased.

When we entered their house, it was past noon. None of the garments factory workers are supposed to be home at this time. But Razia was at home. It is not just Razia, we soon realized, that almost all the workers were at home. A lot of them came to talk about themselves. They were gathering around the streets. If you approach the alley across Rana Plaza in Savar you will find rows of houses where factory workers live. They have a lot to say. It was very difficult to withstand the pile of rage, grief and complaint they have accumulated.

The size and price of most of the rooms they live in are almost the same. Razia’s room is about 10x12ft. A bed frame and another wooden platform almost packed the whole room. What more they have in the room is a wardrobe and some cooking pots. Razia lives in this room with her parents. Before April 24th, they were a few more people living in this room. They however, are no longer here. Some are dead, some missing.

Razia’s mother’s name is Meherjan and father is Isaak Bepari. Although the Bepari title suggests a well off farmer but her father is only a poor farmer. Their family home is at Bara Bahadurpur village under Harirampur upazila in the district of Manikganj. Five year ago, the few pieces of land he possessed were lost to river erosion. His eldest daughter Selina got married and settled in Savar years before they lost everything. At one point in her life, Selina began working as a garment factory worker with her husband. Having lost everything to river erosion, Isaak Bepari came to Savar to live with her eldest daughter Selina. Meherjan’s sister also moved here with her children for the very same reason. Selina’s two sisters - Shumi and Razia soon started working at a local garment factory. Razia used to be in school when she lived in her village. I asked her, “At what age did you start working at garment factories?” Razia smiles. Everyone has the same answer, “If we disclose our real age, nobody will give us work. We are poor. We need to feed ourselves and we need money for that.” So when they started working everyone reported their age to be 18. If their physique is too small or vulnerable, it gets difficult to pass the age test.

Selina lived with her husband and children in the adjacent room. She had two children Imu (12) and Jannatul (5). On April 24th, she died leaving her children behind. When her husband left her and remarried, her children stayed with her. We saw both her children hanging around their grandmother. The eldest one was in school but it was evident that after the death of their mother, missing school was frequent.

Razia’s other sister Shumi Akhter is still missing. Razia and her parents are looking around at every possible corner with Shumi’s photograph and other evidence. The evidence included general diary, certificate issued by the upazila chairman and DNA test report. The evidence also included information of the factory Shumi worked at and her identity card. According to the general diary filed by her father at the local police station, “Shumi Akhter (22) worked at Phantom Apparels located on the fourth floor of Rana Plaza as an operator. On April 24, 2013 she left home approximately at 7:50 am as she would on a regular workday from her current residential address towards to her workplace at Rana Plaza and was on duty at Rana Plaza. Later that day … ever since Rana Plaza collapsed no trace of her could be found - either living or dead. Search for her is still continuing.”

Shumi and Razia used to work six days a week plus overtime on certain days. Their combined income totaling at BDT 10,000 was the sole income of the household of four including their parents. Whatever remained after paying rent at BDT 2,500 per month plus utilities would be spent on grocery. After April 24th, Shumi, one of the earning members of the family is no more. Razia had no work. In addition to that, they have Razia’s two children to feed.

Shawpna, one of their next-door neighbors was stuck in a pile of corpse for three days in the debris of Rana Plaza. She stayed in the hospital for a few days after being rescued. She thought she was doing fine and decided to go home. She doesn’t know who will do her follow-up treatment. She is no condition to go to work. She is now completely dependent on her brother who is a rickshaw puller.

In another house, in a similar sized room, Bina was lying on a bed. Her waist and legs are severely injured. There is no way she can ever stand on her feet. She was released from the hospital because she survived from the debris but now she doesn’t know how she would survive everyday life. Just like Razia and many others Bina doesn’t see any foreseeable future.

The government of Bangladesh calculated the poverty line based on the cost of food and other base necessities listed to survive for a household size of four. I calculated the cost of the items included in this list at the current market rate. The poverty line of income came at a minimum of BDT 18,000 for an urban household of four members. This implies that families with household income below BDT 18,000 are living under poverty line. This means that the combined income of Shumi and Razia including overtime was half of the poverty line income of a four member household.

According to economic and international law, a four-member household should be able to survive on the income of a single earning member. When the government of Bangladesh claims that there has been significant improvement of the poverty condition of the country we need to look into the number of families in Bangladesh able to rise above the poverty line on the income of a single household member. It is difficult to find a single family among white-collar professionals let alone blue-collar workers having just a single member responsible for the total household income. On top of that, if we consider the minimum range of salary based on a standard living the income will be twice the poverty line.

The workers movements on minimum wage of garment factories are now spreading all across the country. Shumi, Selina and Shafiqul would have joined their comrades in this movement had they survived today. Their everyday life struggles motivate all of them to join the movement. We are still hearing elaborate debates over what should be the minimum wage. However, we still have not found the answer to a very simple question, how is it possible that the government tries to rationalize any amount as minimum wage that is less than the poverty line of income? The numbers don’t match up, which is not just less than the poverty line but the actual number is one sixth of the poverty line income. This drives all family members to join the workforce. Even after working overtime for months and including the minors’ their income comes nowhere near the poverty line. We cannot imagine what happens to these families, when multiple earning members of the household all on a sudden die because of the negligence and unappeasable greed of a few person on the top. Like many, what remains for Razia, her parents and two children is an endless pit.

It felt like we were pushing forward in a crowd of missing people. The places we visited and the people we talked to all reported their dead or missing persons to be between the age of 18 (or even less) and 25. They have their mothers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers or children to mourn for them. The issue reparation came up in our conversations. We tried to figure out who amongst them received any reparation and at what amount. It has been six months. There has been no guideline or declaration regarding reparation from any of the concerned authorities including the government, the factory owners, the BGMEA or the foreign buyers. People are holding meetings and conferences within the country and abroad. The Prime Minister gave away some money to a few hundred families collected from individual donations in several installments. In this area, we learned about a single case, where BDT One Lac was sanctioned in the name of a single victim from the Prime Minister’s collective fund. The victim, Shiuly Akhter left a 2yrs 4-month old son named Rony who now lives with his paternal grandfather. But the donation went to his maternal grandfather. No one else in the area received any amount in reparation. The relatives of the many missing people kept on talking. To name a few are Mitu, Rikta, Fatema, Raja … from Gaibandha district. Raja’s mother still can’t stop crying. Raja’s 10-month old daughter Rani is now heading towards an unforeseeable future. Rikta’s dead body was seen on TV. Her mother is running around everywhere with the screenshot. Rikta’s younger sister Shikta is in school. She also has to go places with her sister’s photograph but the authority still have not confirmed Rikta’s death.

All the relatives of the victims including Razia are still in the dark about reparation. They hear rumors at different times and then begins the chase and harassment that follows the living survivors. Those who are able to work, their earning discontinues. There is no reparation for the deceased, no news of the missing and no work for the survivors.

Rani’s mother Moriom also used to work at a garment factory, now she simply cannot do any work at all. Like many others, Razia cannot imagine working in a garment factory again. There is still no punishment for the owners who caused the killing of thousands of workers and the utter destitute of hundred thousand more who are left with nothing. There is still no resolution to compensate or rehabilitate the survivors. Razia and all the other survivors who live with the nightmares of April 24th, again hear yet another incidence of garment factory workers burnt to death on the news.

Writer :Anu Muhammad
7th November 2013